Friday, December 01, 2006


Today, we conclude our conversation with suspense novelist Sandra Ruttan, member of the KILLER YEAR: Class of 2007 and co-founder and submissions director for Spinetingler Magazine.

Sandra Ruttan had her first newspaper column at the age of 13, later studying journalism and communication theory before focusing on special education. She has a creative writing diploma and her debut novel, Suspicious Circumstances, made the first cut in the Opening Pages competition with UK Press in 2005, going on to win Best Fiction from TICO, which led to her publishing contract. The novel, which will be released January 2007, has already drawn acclaim from several best-selling mystery and thriller authors, including Clive Cussler, Cornelia Read, and Tony Hillerman.

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Spend less time on blogs and forums and more time writing. There is a lot to be said for finishing the first manuscript. Until that moment, you’re an aspiring author. When you finish the first draft, you’re a novelist. You enter a new realm, where you have something to edit and, hopefully, market. Plus, once you’ve finished you know you can complete a book. It was an enormous confidence booster to me. When I wrote the first draft of my first book (which was eventually titled Suspicious Circumstances) I didn’t worry about if it was perfect. I just focused on telling the story to completion. Then I went back and worked on making the writing tighter and improving the weak points.

That authors are actually very busy. I’m sure there might be a few authors sitting around in beach chairs sipping Pina Coladas, but I’ve never met any of them. There’s pressure to blog, have a forum, have a newsletter, answer all your emails, tour and somehow get your book out on time. In a way, this intense pressure will probably contribute to more authors burning out sooner. Financially, you’re struggling when you start out and most authors have a full-time job to pay the bills, and they’re trying to handle everything else on top of it. I know many authors who are far busier than I am, and I feel like I can’t keep up some days.

I was recently asked when I was going to start a forum, but with my own blog, the Killer Year blog, Spinetingler, two anthologies I’m contributing to and the next book in editing, the only way to handle my own forum on top of all of that is to give up sleep. You reach a point where you risk having all of the promotion interfere with your writing, and that’s not good. If that happens, you’ve let yourself down, your publisher down and ultimately you’ve let your readers down as well.

As in aspiring authors or authors? For those who aren’t published yet, I would say that they need to actually learn about the business. When I participated in a local writing group, the mentality was just ‘write the book, send it off, hope it gets published’ and that was pretty much end of story. The few who got published were criticized for doing local promotion. Ultimately, I felt it was a situation where talented writers were actually being held back from getting published, because they didn’t understand how the industry works. Publishers don’t put books out because they like you. They put books out because they think they’ll sell. And if you don’t sell, you won’t get published again.

It’s what separates hobbyists from people who want a career. There’s nothing wrong with being a hobbyist. I just think it helps if you know what you’re after, and then take your lead from like-minded people. There was a point where finishing a book was enough for me. I was satisfied. That passed, and I wanted to do more. I wanted to finish a great book, so I did edits and revisions to improve my work. I was pleased, but that feeling passed as well, and then I wanted to be published. For me, it was no longer about a hobby. I was pursuing a career.

I could launch a whole tirade against aspiring authors who refuse to buy books. I’ve known a few. I can’t fathom anyone expecting to earn money selling their books when they won’t buy books themselves. I love books too much to not buy them.

As for published authors, most know far more than I do. There are few that are so extreme with their self-promotion they’ve turned me off, but otherwise I’m happy to learn from those with more experience than I have. It isn’t always easy to make connections with people who are established, and I appreciate the people with experience who have accepted me in as one of their own and do talk to me. I’ve learned a lot from them.

We have 14 authors who are with 9 different publishers. Some have international deals. This is a unique opportunity to learn about how different publishers handle things. Through Killer Year I’ve had direct contact with St. Martin’s, for example. Without Killer Year, that wouldn’t have happened. I feel I’m meeting a lot of people in the business and just by nature of all the Killer Year members pulling together and sharing information, we hear about things we might otherwise not know about.

One thing I’ve learned is how important networking is. You can’t break in as a new author easily without getting solid reviews and endorsements, but as the Killer Year member from the smallest publisher I have the most trouble with this. There are a number of places that won’t review my book because my publisher doesn’t have a track record with crime fiction. Looking at everyone else in the group, I feel constantly behind. Ahead in some respects, because books 2 and 3 are written and just need to be edited, but definitely far behind on the promotional side of the equation. There isn’t much I can do about that, but in a way I feel like I’m watching more than I’m actually experiencing. I have different obstacles, because of being with a small publisher, so the only thing I can focus on is the quality of my writing.

To be honest, I feel done with it all. It took 10,000 ARCs to push The DaVinci Code to its level of success and I’m getting 27 from my publisher. The only thing that’s going to make a difference for me, in terms of sales, will be word of mouth. If people read the book, like it and recommend it, that’s what will push it forward. I’m not in a position to get a lot of reviews and it’s harder to get into bookstores when you’re with a new, small publisher. So, you could say I’m in the stadium, but not really playing the same game as everyone else.

I’ve learned to be comfortable in my own skin. It never occurred to me that so many people were watching me, from before I even had a deal. Between Spinetingler and my blog, I had a presence people were taking notice of. I’m still always surprised when people say they read my blog, and my gut instinct is to ask them why. For whatever reason, people pay attention to what I do. I suspect it’s the fascination of watching a train wreck in motion or something, but I’ve had to learn to shrug it off and not worry too much about what others think. I’m not going to put on a fa├žade and pretend to be something I’m not.

I think the most important thing I’ve learned about craft is how important the craft is to me. Over the past year I’ve learned a lot about tight writing. The quality of what I produce is my focus. I cringe when I read my early work. I still struggle with short stories, but I think they’re improving. My focus is on applying everything I’ve learned and making the writing as strong as it can possibly be.

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Many thanks to suspense novelist Sandra Ruttan. Her debut suspense novel, Suspicious Circumstances (Tico Publishing), hits shelves in January. Meantime, find her online at and her blog, Sandra Ruttan: On Life And Other Inconveniences. You can also find more at the Killer Year website and the Killer Year Blog. Killer Year also has its own MySpace page.

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Related links:
KILLER YEAR: Class of 2007
Adopting Killer Year
Q&A: CORNELIA READ (A Field of Darkness)
Q&A: LEE GOLDBERG (Monk, Diagnosis Murder)
Q&A: ANDREW KLAVAN (Damnation Street)


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